The Christmas Truce of 1914

A few weeks ago, my grandmother showed me a commercial someone had emailed her that depicted the Christmas Truce of 1914. It really is an impressive advertisement:

But do you know the story behind it?

On Friday, January 1, 1915, The Bedfordshire Times and Independent published an article titled, “British and Germans Good Friends on Christmas Day in the Trenches”:

Miss N. Thody, 1, Peel-street, Bedford, has received a letter from Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s which gives an astonishing account of Christmas Day in the trenches. It is dated December 27th: At last I have found the time to answer all your letters. Well dear, you asked me to let you know what kind of Christmas I had. Well I never had a merry one because we were in the trenches, but we were quite happy. Now what I am going to tell you will be hard to believe, but it is quite true. There was no firing on Christmas Day and the Germans were quite friendly with us. They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return. Just after one o’clock on Christmas morning I was on look-out duty and one of the Germans wished me Good morning and a Merry Christmas. I was never more surprised in my life when daylight came to see them all sitting on top of the trenches waving their hands and singing to us. Just before we came out of the trenches (we came out of them on Christmas night) one of them shouted across, “Keep your heads down, we are just going to fire” and they sent about a dozen bullets flying over the top of our heads. Now who would believe it if they did not see it with their own eyes? It is hard enough for us to believe. What kind of Christmas did you have? I do hope you enjoyed yourself. I thought of you a good many times. I don’t expect it was much of a Christmas in England. I haven’t received mother’s parcel yet. I wonder what has become of it. I have had some eatables but they were nowhere near as good as mother’s.”

When Europe marched off to war in the summer of 1914, it was widely believed by both sides that the war would only last a few weeks–a month or two at the most.

By the close of December 1914, however, the “Great War” had already claimed close to a million lives, and it became strikingly clear that the war was far from over.

Nevertheless, on December 24th, 1914, the Western Front fell silent as ordinary soldiers on both sides of “no man’s land” made peace in what has come to be known as the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Estimates vary, but most believe that about 100,000 men, mainly British and Germans, took part.

It was the sheer size of the event led many to doubt that it even happened. As late as 1983, one veteran called the Christmas Truce a “latrine rumor.”

In November 2005, the last survivor of the truce–Sgt. Alfred Anderson of Scotland’s Fifth Battalion Black Watch, died at the age of 109. The stories of that remarkable day are all we have left. It is important, therefore, that we continue to share the letters, journals, and memoirs of those who were there.

Here are some excerpts I have found to be particularly interesting:

The truce broke out spontaneously in many places. Pvt. Albert Moren of the Second Queens Regiment recalled the scene on Christmas Eve near the French village of La Chapelle d’Armentières:

It was a beautiful moonlit night, frost on the ground, white almost everywhere; and about 7 or 8 in the evening there was a lot of commotion in the German trenches and there were these lights -I don’t know what they were. And then they sang “Silent Night” – “Stille Nacht.” I shall never forget it, it was one of the highlights of my life. I thought, what a beautiful tune.

Rifleman Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled how the mood spread:

Then suddenly lights began to appear along the German parapet, which were evidently make-shift Christmas trees, adorned with lighted candles, which burnt steadily in the still, frosty air! … First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing–two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.

Christmas Truce 1914

The shared carols inspired Capt. Josef Sewald of Germany’s 17th Bavarian Regiment to make a bold gesture:

I shouted to our enemies that we didn’t wish to shoot and that we make a Christmas truce. I said I would come from my side and we could speak with each other. First there was silence, then I shouted once more, invited them, and the British shouted “No shooting!” Then a man came out of the trenches and I on my side did the same and so we came together and we shook hands–a bit cautiously!

Christmas Truce 1914

The enemies quickly became friends, as Cpl. John Ferguson of the Second Seaforth Highlanders recalled:

We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans–Fritz and I in the center talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators. … What a sight–little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs.

Christmas Truce 1914

On Christmas Day, some Germans and British held a joint service to bury their dead. Second Lt. Arthur Pelham Burn of the Sixth Gordon Highlanders was there:

Our Padre … arranged the prayers and psalms, etc., and an interpreter wrote them out in German. They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry. It was an extraordinary and most wonderful sight. The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared.

According to several accounts, soccer games were played in no man’s land with makeshift balls that Christmas. Lt. Kurt Zehmisch of Germany’s 134th Saxons Infantry Regiment witnessed a match:

Eventually the English brought a soccer ball from their trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as our friends for a time.

Christmas Truce 1914

Second Lt. Bruce Bairnsfather of the First Warwickshires saw an even more unusual fraternization:

The last I saw of this little affair was a vision of one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civilian life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground while the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.

Inevitably, both sides were soon ordered back to their trenches. Capt. Charles “Buffalo Bill” Stockwell of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers recalled how the peace ended early on Dec. 26:

At 8:30, I fired three shots into the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it on the parapet. He [a German] put up a sheet with “Thank You” on it, and the German captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots into the air, and the war was on again.

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